Back to School - how to know if your school is great

It's back to school season! This is the time-tested way we learn what our children will study for the year, meet and assess their teachers. Other than being a student myself, I really don't have any idea how to evaluate a teacher or a school.  And I don't think I'm a minority. 

A new movie with a ton of buzz, Waiting for Superman, is about the challenges facing disadvantaged children in getting into a good school - charter or otherwise. I'm looking forward to seeing it next week and I'll post a review. Here's Thomas Friedman's assessment. 

Elevated view of teacher assisting student with lesson (10-11)

I live in a privileged area - we have "excellent" public and private schools. How do I know? Actually, all I know is that we don't have bad schools because we have a high graduation rate and a high college matriculation rate. Apparently, test scores are high too. This constitutes "excellent" on a statistical basis. But statistics don't apply to individual cases and this definition doesn't really work for me.

What makes a school great?
  1. Small class sizes?
    Nice to have, but not really impactful except for the most disadvanged students.
  2. Cutting edge curriculum and technology?
    It's important for students to learn how to use technology, but differentiating teaching to match learning styles and students' different abilities is much more important.
  3. High standardized test scores?
    Pretty much predictive of nothing except test-teaching and community affluence. Doesn't predict academic success in college. Doesn't assess creativity, collaboration and communication needed for lifelong success. And the gov't is looking to evaluate teachers based on year on year test improvement.

What then? Great teachers. Every class.

The funny thing is that schools that have more than one or two great teachers seem to have a lot of great teachers. And great teachers - who differentiate instruction and materials to the needs of each child, focus on teaching them how to think and create rather than regurgitate - have a huge predictive impact on academic and personal success.

I think the secret is that schools with great teachers not only hire great potential teachers, but make their teachers great through professional development and assessment. They have a culture of excellence and a shared understanding of what constitutes excellence in teaching. In my professional realm, I continuously invest in my team's professional development, provide real-time feedback and do formal assessments every year.  At Wornick - our school, the teachers are participating in weekly learning circles, mentoring each other, assessing and supporting each other in the classroom and having formal evaluations twice a year. This is the impact of our new Head of School's commitment to excellence - she's building a system that creates, cultivates and retains great teachers. 

Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook announced a $100M grant to Newark schools to help improve outcomes for their students. Newark already spends twice as much per student as the national average ($24K) and has very low success educating its youth. It's an incredible gift. I hope Newark Mayor Cory Booker considers teacher development and assessment as a tool to radically impact all students.

Does your school invest in developing and evaluating it's teachers? Do your teachers have a culture of striving for continuous improvement and excellence?  If not, are you hoping that by luck your child will get a great teacher?